The Back Forty Ch. 1.2

Mary Anne's house


Penny insisted on being called Penelope now, but Cain called her by the name she went by when they were together. She didn’t seem to mind. She had insisted on at least dinner and a night at her place before Cain made the drive from Boston to the house. Penny always made a great baked ziti when she had occasion to and the two friends were seeing each other after 6 years. In the wake of their respective nervous breakdowns and regrouping periods, a night of repose and catching up before his two hours in the car certainly called for that.

“Jesus H. Christ!” She exclaimed when Cain got out to the curb. “What have you done with my friend?” she said as the two hugged for what felt like an hour. Finally, they separated to really look at each other.

“Stop it,” he said as she opened the trunk for his bag.

“You, sir, are not getting in my car until you tell me what you’ve done with the fat, bearded man,” she said, looking him up and down.

“Can we go now?”

She grinned and walked around to the driver’s seat as Cain got in the other side.

“Seriously though, what’s your secret?” she said as she put the key in the ignition. Cain pulled a cigarette from his pack and held it up, his eyebrows raised, and looked at her. She leaned over to the glove box, got out a lighter and handed it to him.

“Pretty simple actually,” he said as he bent over the lighter, his hands cupped around it. “I figured out what was making me fat and I stopped eating it. A steady diet of Xanex and Sunny D helped too.”

She started to put the car in “Drive”, then flipped it back up and turned to him.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m clean now. Mostly.”

She nodded knowingly, and pulled out of the Passenger Pick-up lane at Logan and onto the highway. Cain had never been to this airport before. He had always flown in and out of LaGuardia. The times he had actually come home, that is.

“When was the last time you talked to her,” Penny asked as she flipped through stations on Syrius.

“Couple months ago.”

“How was she then?”

“I don’t know. Okay, I guess.”

“Or not,” Penny looked at him, then back to the road.

“Yeah. Or not.” Cain replied. He pulled his money clip from his jeans pocket and counted. $500. Enough to get a motel and meals for a few days until he made his decision.

“Well, I can put you up for a day or two. Mitzy gets back on Wednesday,” Penny said.

“I’ll be outta your hair tomorrow, I want to get on the road. And give you the chance to get rid of any trace of me. I don’t think your significant other would take kindly to even knowing I was here.”

Penny nodded. She had sent Cain quite a few letters when she was at Emerson. The one where she had finally owned up to her sexual orientation really came as no surprise. At the time, the two of them were on the way to mending their relationship that ended with his drunken rage and subsequent departure from the state and her checking into rehab in the first place. And it was no small order to admit to yourself and to the world that you like girls better than boys when you’re the daughter of a Lutheran deacon. It explained why the two had gotten along so well in every endeavor other than addiction and sex. When they were both drinking, they verbally fought to the death. She attacked his petty crimes and wannabe Irish mafia friends. He crucified her for her abundantly promiscuous past. When they were in the middle of sex, he gave it the old college try on a belly full of Jameson and Killians. Meanwhile, her coital demeanor said she was mentally making a grocery list and wondering if she left the oven on.

When they got to her duplex, Penny unlocked the door while Cain shifted nervously looking down both sides of the street. Inside, he put his backpack by the front door as Penny headed towards the bathroom.

“Anything to drink?” he called to her.

“In the fridge,” she said and closed the door. Cain took off his jacket and laid it on top of recliner. He went into the spotless kitchen, took a glass from one of three neatly placed rows in a cupboard, and opened the refrigerator. Pulling a can of Coke from the bottom shelf, he opened the freezer to look for ice. As he got a handful of cubes from the bin, a bottle neck caught his eye. He pulled out a sealed fifth of Absolut at the moment Penny came into the kitchen, the toilet recovering from a flush behind her.

“If you had given me a little more notice I could have –“

She stopped when she saw him looking over the bottle, then at her.

“Mostly,” she said, echoing him. It was his turn to give her a prolonged look in the eyes.

“How long has it been?”

“Four months, 3 weeks, 6 days,” She said as she took the bottle out of his hands and put it back in the freezer.

“And the relapse?”

“One night. Mitzy and I had a fight,” she said matter-of-factly and retrieved her own soda from the refrigerator. “You know me, Cain. I just can’t throw anything away.”

He smiled. “It’s good to see you,” he said.

“You too.”


Guns ‘N’ Roses “Paradise City” blared from the rental car stereo as Cain came up the roundabout driveway. The transmission of the Nissan Altima sputtered for a few seconds, then died.

“Thrifty, indeed,” Cain said and pulled the key from the ignition.

Trees batted against the house in the strong wind. Cain zipped up his jacket and climbed the two long cobblestone stairways until he stood in front of the house. Blue paint chips riddled the last five wooden stairs to the small front porch. Two large stone pots with rotten stems sat on either side. A storm door lay in the shrubs, almost covered with leaves, on the side of the stairs and hinges appeared to be halfway toward being totally ripped from the wooden frame. Cain looked at the storm door, then at the front windows on either side of the door. The shades were drawn inside all of them, with a large jagged hole in one where someone had presumably thrown a rock into his parents’ living room. He started up the last stairs, paused, then backed off and slowly walked along the dirt path around the house.

He couldn’t go in. Not yet.

A dirt path led around the house to a back yard three times the size the front. In one corner stood the herb garden, partitioned off with waste-high chicken wire. In the center, the fire pit had been robbed of any remaining wood or kindling. In another corner was what was left of his father’s restored stone BBQ pit. The gas grill was firmly embedded, but the grill had been gutted of the grates, propane tanks and everything else. He walked over to the fire pit, kicked one of the surrounding rocks into the middle, then turned and surveyed the back of the house. Unlike the windows in front, the windows on the back of the house were all shattered, the drapes instead all ripped away. The large, varnished wooden deck, the place where his family had spent summer evenings having dinner and playing Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble, was literally on its last legs. Most of the support beams were rotting and he could see a big gaping whole near the back door from where he stood in the yard below. The steps on the long set of stairs going up to the deck were simply missing. . Absorbing the whole scene, Cain concluded that his sister must have stopped any type of maintenance on the house a long time ago. Below the deck, what was once a big stack of firewood had been reduced to a couple thin strips on the bottom row. Beside it was the door that led down into the cellar.

It was wide open.

Cain walked toward it, trying to see into the cellar but could make out nothing in the darkness. He descended down the enclosed stairway which was almost totally packed with leaves. As he did, he halted when he heard newspapers rustle inside the cellar, then silence.

He pulled his small Stihl blade from his back pocket, then stepped down the first two stairs.

Inside the cellar, he could barely see a long row of canning jars filled with all kinds of fruit against one wall. Behind and beside all the jars were stacks upon stacks of old, yellow newspapers. On top of those were wooden crates filled with God-knows-what. As he climbed down the third and last stair in front of the open door and his eyes started to adjust to the darkness, one of the crates fell to the concrete floor with a loud Crack! Something ran past him, the weight of which knocked him off balance and to his knees. Once at the top of the stairs Cain had just went down, two rats the size of cocker spaniels turned and squealed angrily at him, then ran off into the yard.

Cain let out the breath he realized he had been holding for at least a minute, then collapsed his knife and put it back into his pocket. Climbing the stairs again, he went back to the fire pit and sat on one of the stone benches. Sliding his hands in his pockets, he looked up at the rapidly fleeting canopy cast by the trees all around the yard, the leaves on the branches being blown back into the forest beyond the yard. Out of the bushes at the edge of the yard, a rabbit came trotting over to the pit. Seeing Cain, he slowly and sporadically trotted over, his nose and ears darting this way and that.

“Nothing in there, little guy,” Cain said as he looked back to the house, then turned his gaze to the sky. “Nothing at all.”


The Back Forty, Ch. 1: Sabbatical

Mary Anne's house

“Can I get a large pumpkin spice latte please?” he said as he pulled out his wallet.

“Do you mean a tall?” The girl behind the counter seemed more interested in her fingernails than his order. He closed his eyes, sighed, then looked at her.

“You have three sizes, right?”

She seemed startled at his question. “Um, yes.”

“One of them is the smallest size, ones a little a bigger and ones the biggest right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Give me a pumpkin spice latte in that biggest size.”

“You mean a venti?”

He took another deep breath. Sometimes all the morning meditation in the world didn’t work when speaking to minimum wage. “Yes, a venti.”

As the girl set about making the espresso, Cain deflated a little. He slumped over the counter and rested his forearm on the espresso machine and his chin on his forearm. At the plate glass window at the front of the Starbucks, a couple sat across from each other. As they sipped coffee, they flipped through a Fodor’s New England travel guide, pausing at the pages that had the most striking colored foliage. On the floor next to the table, a little girl braided a doll’s hair. She was talking softly to the doll when she seemed to sense Cain looking at her. She glanced over at him and smiled. Cain waved at her with his pinky finger 3 times. The little girl smiled at him a moment longer and went back to her hair styling.

“$6.75” said Minimum Wage.

Cain pulled cash from his wallet and put in on the counter. Dropping his change in his pocket, he shouldered his backpack and looked around for a place to sit. Instinctively, he sat in a chair in the corner at a table in the back of the coffee shop. Even at the Starbucks at O’Hare International, one could never be too careful about who might pass by and recognize him. He took a long sip from his drink, barely noticing how scalding hot it was. At least October still had pumpkin spiced lattes going for it, he thought, and immediately chastised himself for his bitterness.

That’s not true at all. October used to be your favorite month, he thought to himself. And it probably will be again. Just not this October. No, certainly not this time.

As he settled in to his seat, he pulled his e-cigarette from his pocket and took a big drag as he opened the Sunday New York Times he had plopped on the table. How had the George Carlin bit gone? You could probably beat a flight attendant to death with the Sunday Times if you really wanted to. Something like that. He smiled gently as he flipped through the paper looking for a weather report. Not that weather would matter much. He had packed his two bags, the backpack and the TSA-approved bag that fit in the overhead (he hated checking bags) hastily before he left his apartment. He was wearing his black leather jacket and he thought he had packed at least one of his three black hoodies. At least, he hoped he had. Fall in New England can get real cold real quick. Besides, it was difficult to focus on packing after you walk in on your girlfriend banging your neighbor. As if on cue, his smart phone rang. “Kalina work”, the screen said. A third sigh. Deeper than the other two. The deepest one yet. He swiped the screen and held the phone to his ear. For a moment, there was nothing but silence.

“Look, I can explain,” she said. On his list of Stupidest Things to Say to a Boyfriend/Girlfriend when they catch you with someone else, that one had to be in the top three. He knew. He had tried it himself a couple times. It ranked below, if not on par, with “It meant nothing” and “Please don’t let this come between us.”

“You said that before. Nothing to explain, Gorgeous.” He used one of her pet names for him on purpose. He sipped his coffee. “I’m leaving for a while.”

“Please, just come over so we can talk about this,” she said.

“Talk about it,” he said and dragged on his e-cig. “What exactly do you want to talk about? If it’s the color of his boxers or what kind of condom he was wearing, I’m really not interested.” He was amazed at how steady his voice was given the fact that he knew somewhere, deep down, he wanted to chuck the phone against the wall and return to his paper. And, at any rate, he knew the boxers were a blue plaid number. He had inadvertently kicked them aside as he came through the door to surprise her. He had told her he had to go Milwaukee for the weekend to meet with a vendor there. Instead, he had unlocked her front door as quietly as he could and walked in on her on her sofa with his across-the-hall neighbor she met at the neighbor’s party last Christmas. Instantly, he remembered the times he was in her position at similar moments. So this is what it felt like to be the cheater and not the cheatee, he thought. For a few seconds, he didn’t breath. Her eyes had met his and she started a stammering, trying to say something. Exhaling the last of the breath in his lungs, he had calmly walked over to the coffee table in the middle of the room and put down the purple envelope and the cactus with a purple bow tied around the pot. When he walked back to the door, Kalina finally broke out of her stammering spell and blurted out “Wait! I can explain!” as he closed the door behind him. A voice on the intercom announced the last boarding call for American Airlines flight 383 to Atlanta.

“Are you at the airport?” she said, her voice now shaky.

“Yep,” he said and turned the paper back to the front page. Next to the story Teen Killed in Wooded Area Outside Boston was the headline Second Ebola Case reported in Texas.

“Baby please, just … come home. We can work this out.” Damn. He had forgotten about that one. It seemed she was following the cheating playbook page by page. He thought about when he had sent her that text message a year ago. She had started the chain by saying that she didn’t know he liked black girls. He had replied that she was smart and funny and that’s what he liked about her, that she could have been a smurf for all he cared. That made her laugh and she texted so. He had asked her out that day.

“I’m going home. I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he said, ignoring her appeal. “I’ll see ya.” He ended the call. Now he needed a real cigarette. He slung his backpack on, picked up his coffee and left the Starbucks, searching around for the nearest door outside. As the automatic door slid shut behind him, he thanked God that he had decided to stay on this side of the security checkpoint. Not only because it provided him with one more chance to have a real smoke, but also because he was dreading having to deal with the largely miserable rent-a-cops that comprise the Transportation Security Administration. He fished around in his jacket for his pack of Winstons. As he pulled the pack out of his pocket, a photo came out with it and fell to the ground. He bent over, picked it up, and stared at it, forgetting for the moment to light his smoke. Cain didn’t know when the photo was taken or even who took it. He had found it in a box as he unpacked in his new apartment a couple years prior. Whenever it was taken, the house he had grown up in looked abandoned.

“Like it is now,” he said to himself and lit his cigarette. Like he felt now. Abandoned for the new gorgeous guy Kalina was now duping. It was 8:45 AM and he already wanted a beer. Maybe with a shot-and-beer chaser.

“Yeah, that’d be a good idea,” he said to himself and exhaled. “That would be just what the doctor ordered.” He decided he would wait until the sun went behind the yard arm, as Tragic would say. He put the photo back into his pocket and looked out onto the cars pulling into and out of O’Hare like an explorer surveying the approaching coastline as his ship slid ashore. He would wait until he knew what happened to his sister.

The Certainty of Uncertainty, an Encore

“Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

-Diamond Sutra

Impermanence. Knowing, at your core, in the deepest part of your being, that everything is fleeting and there are absolutely, unequivocally, no guarantees. Of anything. Ever.

This is a terrifying prospect.

I think at the heart of every parents profound love for their child is the immense desire to see permanence in the child’s life. My parents want me to have a well-paying job with health insurance and stability. They also want me to find joy and fulfillment in my life so I am never tempted to take up my addiction to drugs and alcohol again.

My friends, both in and out of the Program, want me to believe in myself and continue with the optimistic and brutally honest approach I’ve come to apply to the life I’ve created for myself in sobriety and avoid the deep chasm of doubt and, thus, misery, that I indulged in the darkest days of my drinking and using.

For myself, I want the fledgling romance I have been nurturing for a little over a month (sometimes with a little too much sunlight and watering) to blossom into a radiant flower, strong and beautiful.

And all those things might happen.

And they might not.

And that is the scariest and most glorious of prospects.

Because while what is happening for me right now may get exponentially better.

It also may get worse.

I lost my job at the Humane Society last week. And it may be the great sense of inner peace I have found in regular meditation and study of Buddhism. Or it may be the unity and security I feel with my new friends in the Program; the feeling of camaraderie and identification with friends I haven’t felt in two decades. It may be that giddy anticipation I feel every day at the possibility that I might get a few moments to talk or text with her and laugh and smile. It’s all of these things, and more.

It’s taking solace in the impermanence of this life. Not being afraid of it but celebrating it. Being thankful that I might get the chance to help someone or make them laugh. Sending thank you cards to the people that gave me a chance. Being filled with the child-like joy that I will see her again and talk with her and hug her.

I strive to live in the joy and happiness that the Universe has given me. In this moment and all moments. The joy that is Now, for the Now is my joy.

And it is fleeting.



I stepped onto the porch key in hand. As I unlocked the front door, the number continued to swirl around in my head.


After upping my game at the gym to first the Stairmaster, then the treadmill, I had steadily increased the duration of the torture. Today, I had finally topped out at 13 minutes/ 1.3 miles after the lifting and I felt fantastic. Only one small (and by small I mean gigantic) problem remained.

I opened the door to find Her squatting behind a large black cauldron bubbling over with putrid, thick green liquid. Devil’s stew.

“Eeee hee hee hee hee!” She cackled as She stirred the pot first clockwise, then reverse with a large, ragged wooden spoon.

I stood in the doorway for a moment with my gym bag still slung over my shoulder. I looked into Her sunken eyes at the dull yellow light emanating from them. A charcoal black hat, tall at its peak and extending all around her crown all but covered Her face. I could really only see Her smiling lips half-covering her dark brown teeth.

“And who are you?”

“I’m Nicotine my pretty, my sweet,” She said before letting out a dry, rough hack that culminated in a thick, black phlegmy sludge that she spat into the cauldron.

I looked Her up and down again. “It figures.”

“What figures my rotten little apple core?”

“That you’d be a woman,” I said. I walked to my room, slung my gym bag on my bed and went into the kitchen to make coffee. When I turned the corner, She was there again, this time stroking a sickly black kitten with the same yellow eyes. The kitty hissed her long throaty disapproval.

“And why is that?” She asked.

“Well, a day doesn’t pass that I don’t crave your sweet smell, smile and touch. Having you around makes it all the more difficult to work out to my potential and in the end, you’ll probably kill me.”

She giggled maniacally.

“Well, not you specifically,” I said and walked back to my room. Sitting on my bed, I took off my gym shoes and socks and threw them in my closet with the rest of my gym gear. Down to just my gym shorts, I walked back in the kitchen and got out the skillet. She remained in the corner. Instead of a kitty in Her lap this time, she stroked the mane of a big orange tiger.

“You will always have the cravings my dear,” She said and stroked the tigers ears, The tiger glanced over at me, licked its chops a couple times, then dipped her head back under Her hand.

“Actually, that’s not true,” I said. “I will always have the desire to smoke. But that’s just you talking. You’re a powerful old shrew, my dear, and when I started courting you, you were so enticing. We have danced your waltz for many years. But now the shriveled up old hag you are shows forth like the woman in the bathtub in The Shining. I have every reason to quit and have for quite some time. But now, I have one more. I’m never going to be able to run a 5K or a half-marathon until I break your evil spell. And you know what? I’m even ready to Tango with a fair maiden or two. Can’t do that with Black Lung.”

She slunk up to me like a snake. Slowly sliding up the side of my body, She whispered in my ear.

“You can try the gum or vaping or cutting down,” She said and flicked Her forked tongue in my ear. “But you will never, ever be rid of me.”

“Oh yeah? Tell that to Him,” I said and motioned to the porch outside where He lay on his side, battered and bruised with a bottle of wine upturned to next Him. She gasped and ran to His side, cradling His head in Her lap.

“You two make a cute couple. And you really deserve each other. Now if you’ll excuse me …” I said before I slammed the door and sat down with my breakfast.

The Certainty of Uncertainty

We need normalcy. We need reliability. Above all, I think we crave a sense of certainty in our lives. That’s why, in my opinion, addiction has such an intense appeal. For so many people, the certainty of addiction provides a sense of stability or normalcy to our lives that can’t be matched. For better? Sometimes. But for the alcoholic, the meth head, the pothead, the coke head, it’s for the worse almost every single time. Yet we look at the substance and can say, with all certainty, at least that’s there and I can go to it whenever I need it as often as I need it.

Buddhism teaches the impermanence of all earthly things. Even our bodies. For as much as we want to point to them and say “I am addicted to nicotine” or “I always start the day with a bowl of oatmeal” or “ I can’t function without meditation”, we can and do always get along just fine if we don’t have these things. When it comes to addiction, we do well when we step back from our addictive life and ask ourselves how, exactly, is my immense allegiance to maintaining, even nurturing, my practice of drinking/smoking/snorting myself into oblivion really benefiting me. The short answer, of course, is it isn’t. A hell of a lotta the time, it’s cost us a job, a house, a wife, a child, and all manner of things that we held dear and sacrificed for the certainty of addiction. In truth, there is no “always,” no “can’t,” and no “I am” because there is no need for “always,” no necessity for necessity. Apart from water and breathing, our bodies will figure out a way to keep on truckin ’and the “you” that asserts “I am” is not the same “you” of yesterday or tomorrow. Ya’ dig?

Enter the certainty of recovery. To the newcomer, the guy who stares at the table for the entire hour of a meeting and wonders how the hell he ever got there (I know him, His name is Mitch and he does stand-up comedy now and he’s really good at it), a meeting is often the last place on earth they want to be and the place they most need to be. My friend Mitch once said that a meeting is the safest place you will be all day. I extrapolate on this concept and assert that it’s the most valuable place an alcoholic/addict will be all day. You just have to be open enough to put aside your preconceived notions about the followers of Koresh who all sit down together and whine about how hard their lives are. Now admittedly, there are groups of these people out there. Just as there are groups of folks that insist that you dress up for their meeting and call your sponsor every day and you only be addicted to booze (Spoiler alert: Addiction knows no such restrictions. You could have a problem with huffing embalming fluid and you’d probably get something out of a meeting).

The problem isn’t with booze or pot or coke per se. The problem is with our undeniable, primordial need for the certainty we get from knowing the mind-altering substance is there. At a meeting recently, a man stated that he spent the last couple decades in a haze. He was numb to the real world, the colors and people, the sunrises and the brilliance, the lusciously vibrant hue that is Now. He knew only the pain, the humiliation, and the vast empty void that is Him. As I said, recovery can and, for a vast number of people does, provide that same certainty we crave, only in the spark of hope that grows into the inferno of Love that we feel when we hug a brother, kiss a lover and comfort a child. The Love that we have for a sunset and a walk with our dog. The love that we enjoy with friends at a card game and riding a roller coaster. The Love in our Now.

This is why so many of the clichés in the Program are clichés. Because the Program and others like it have been around for some 80 years and things like “one day at a time,” “keep coming back,” and “It works if you work it” have stood the test of time and are as a reliable as Old Faithful. They work. They are true. And they provide us with the certainty we so crave.